For Celtics' McHale, retirement proves to be painful decision

May 06, 1993|By Jackie MacMullan | Jackie MacMullan,Boston Globe

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He wanted to do it on the court. Kevi McHale had this retirement thing all planned out: have a chat with the reporters who had covered him for all those glorious years, tell a few jokes, reminisce a little, then pull off the No. 32 jersey and end it.

But it wasn't that easy; no, it wasn't easy at all. Thinking about retiring is one thing; saying it out loud is quite another.

Kevin McHale finally admitted it after the Boston Celtics were eliminated by the Charlotte Hornets from the NBA playoffs last night: His career is over. No more twisting scoops under the basket, no more arching fall-aways, no more octopus rebounds, no more blocked shots, no more wisecracks.

No more pain.

"This has been a very tough year for me," he said. "I've had a lot of injuries, but this is the first time in my career I lost my mental edge. That was the really frustrating part.

"I played so passive in so many games because I was afraid to get hurt. I was afraid of doing anything. I had to dig deep, deep, deep for what I gave in the playoffs."

He confirmed what we have suspected all along, that he made his decision to retire at the start of training camp. In fact, when McHale reported for the grueling preseason workouts and his feet became wracked with pain within days, he decided he would not play the 1992-93 season.

"It was hard, because my feet were really hurting," he said. "So I told [wife] Lynn, and we sat on the bed and talked about it.

"Then I went down and told the kids, Kristen and Joey and Mikey and Sasha, and they were so disappointed, because they couldn't be ballboys and stuff, so I figured, 'I guess I can strap it up and go again.' "

But this season was not like all the others. He was inconsistent offensively and was embarrassed at his lack of mobility defensively. He played in pain constantly.

He went to work every day with guys 10 years younger, and he didn't recognize the music they played or the clothes they liked or the way they viewed life. He was a dinosaur.

In January, the mixture of pain and doubt and frustration and resignation sent him into a tailspin, and he was virtually incommunicado for several days. He had decided it was time to quit -- right now -- and he would have done it if Celtics executive vice president Dave Gavitt hadn't convinced him otherwise.

"I talked to Mr. Gavitt, and I told him I was done," McHale said. "But he talked me out of it. He said the team needed me."

Gavitt was right. As January turned to February and the snow melted and spring came around, the playoffs jolted McHale into a realization.

"I decided I had to stop worrying about my feet and just play," he said.

He was the flashback he had been joking about all season. He was energetic and active and effective. Last night, in his final performance, he scored 19 points in 33 minutes and grabbed six rebounds in the 104-103 defeat. McHale and Robert Parish gave the Celtics hope.

"One thing I wanted to do was go out with pride," McHale said. "I'm disappointed in the game. If we lost, I wanted to lose in Boston Garden. The fans have been so great there. I always played before sellout crowds.

"I went through so much in Boston. I've run the gamut of emotions on that floor. I've cried, been jubilant, been frustrated, been happy.

"But there is a time for everything, and it's my time to step down."

The reason he resisted making his retirement official was a desire to avoid a Kevin McHale Victory Tour. He didn't want those distractions for himself or the club. Most of all, he didn't want to be eulogized until his career was really over.

"I didn't want to talk about what was," he said. "I wanted to concentrate on what is."

As expected, McHale will move back home to Minnesota when his kids finish the school year. He was vague about his plans, but the Minnesota Timberwolves have talked to him about a job as a television analyst, as well as possible front-office positions.

These were not easy topics to discuss, not last night at center court, with a throng of reporters watching him fight back the tears again and again, until he didn't bother to bottle up those emotions any longer.

"I'm sad," he admitted. "This is an emotional thing. It's tough when you have been doing something since you were 12 or 13 years old, like I've done it.

"It was so much fun when I was healthy. And it was so hard when I wasn't. In light of the Reggie [Lewis] thing, my situation was so menial and so small, but I let it affect me sometimes, and I'm not proud of it."

No one will remember those times. They will remember an All-Star docket that is jammed with highlights and heroics. They will remember an easygoing, affable superstar who tried at all times to remain a common man. They will remember a player who quietly carried the load of the team's charity obligations without any interest in garnering publicity for it.

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